Be on the lookout for leasing and rental scams

All Things Legal

Whether you’re on the move in the military or a civilian changing job locations, one of the top priorities is finding a place to live. The stress of finding a great fit in a specific time-frame can lead you directly into a scam. Even with a limited budget and the need to make every dollar count toward good housing, securing a rental should not result in cutting corners and taking chances.

Two common scams are hijacked ads and phantom rentals. Ads posted online can be compromised by individuals and/or companies who hack into the actual rental/real estate website and change the contact information to showcase a different name, telephone number and email for consumers regarding a particular property.

In this case, the property actually exists, but the “claimed realtors” collecting the rent are fraudulent.

On the other side of the spectrum, property is advertised to potential buyers that is nonexistent or not for rent.

Both types of scams are looking to obtain the payment up-front before the buyer physically moves in. It’s always a good idea to be thorough when looking for a place to live. Fake rental agents can be very convincing with their elaborate marketing ploys. Unusual payment requirements can be a warning sign for a potential scam.

If a rental advertisement requires money to be wired to an account for the initial down payment and/or the first month’s rent without a signed contract, you should be concerned. Wiring money is equivalent to paying in cash. Thus, there isn’t any documentation to retrieve the funds once they are dispersed.

Never sign a lease and never send money to an individual and/or company before you have visited the rental property and know that it will meet your needs.

Inspecting the prospective rental home will ensure that it truly is as described in the advertising. Furthermore, you will meet the rental agent —key in hand — to give you access, and you can ensure that he has the authorization to serve as the rental agent on the property.

If you are unable to personally inspect the property, have a family member or trusted friend do a walk-through for you. Research the contact agent’s name online to learn if he has an affiliation with a rental property management company and if he is the contact agent on this and other properties.

Also research the rental property online to determine if the place is listed with the same specifications and rental terms that were provided in the advertisement you saw. Differences in square footage, appliances and amenities could be a tip-off that the advertising is false.

The owners of the rental property may claim to be out of the country and indicate that a third party will make all of the leasing arrangements with you. The legitimacy of this third party can be easily ascertained if he or she is an employee of an established local property management company, all of the lease documents bear the heading of the management company, and all monies are to be paid to the property management company. However, if the third party is allegedly a family member or friend of the owner, be wary of a potential scam.

Don’t send money overseas at the direction of a third party. Unless you can obtain concrete information on the owner and the third party, you should consider renting a different property.

If you find yourself in the midst of a rental scam and are looking for guidance on how to proceed, contact your local law enforcement agency, the Federal Trade Commission at, and/or the Fort Meade Legal Assistance Office. To schedule an appointment with an attorney, call 301-677-9504 or 301-677-9536. The office is located at 4217 Morrison St., first floor, Office of the Staff Judge Advocate.

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